Crafting Canoes of Change in Fiji

Illustration by Ani Asribabayan

This article was featured in the publication, Feminist Philanthropy: Stories of Resilience, in which Women’s Fund Armenia put together a collection of articles from sister funds (including Women’s Fund Fiji) from various parts of the world.  Published in 2021, the publication, can be downloaded from the Women’s Fund Armenia’s website here.

By  Kuini Rabo and Menka Goundan

Since Fiji’s independence from Britain in 1970, the political landscape of Fiji has evolved. The 1960s and 1970s were exciting times in the Pacific. The heavily colonised region was embarking on independence which brought ideologies of human rights, emancipation, and suffrage to the Pacific Ocean. With the changing tides, women had stepped into the socio-political light with many women pioneering in many sectors like medicine, ecology, law, and education. These pioneering women soon started to co-conspire and form collectives.

The 1980s to the 1990s were a time of vibrant activism. Women took to the streets of Suva (Fiji’s capital) in response to increasing domestic violence and rape, nuclear proliferation in the Pacific, and the rule of law. These early marches were symbolic because they spurred systemic and legislative reforms not just in Fiji but also across the Pacific. These events are today recognised and celebrated as the cornerstone of women’s human rights in Fiji and also mark the beginnings of the Young Women’s Christian Association in Fiji, Fiji Women’s Crisis Center, and Fiji Women’s Rights Movement. These organisations represent the deep journey and the studious navigation of many turbulent events in Fiji’s history.

Our feminist journey in Fiji is rooted in the foundations of these organisations. It is the map that our feminist godmothers and sisters had charted that we now use as a guide to inform our collective path beyond horizons.

In reaching beyond, the Fijian feminists visioned a women’s fund in the region. In 2017, through the support of the Australian Government, the Fiji Women’s Fund (now known as the Women’s Fund Fiji), the Pacific’s first national women’s fund was incepted. The Fund came at a time when many groups and organisations in Fiji, led by and for women, were facing a great resource calamity. The Fund soon became the connector, the conduit, and an accomplice to many national organisations, rural remote women’s groups, and diverse women’s collectives. Fijian feminists were now dreaming bigger, our horizons stretching far and wide.

The horizons we dreamt of during the Pacific Feminist Forums in 2016 and 2019 have continued to guide the work of feminists in the Pacific. In our dreaming, we identified challenges and our feminist realities of climate change, violence, patriarchy, and deep-rooted injustice. We had never dreamt of COVID-19 – the global pandemic, which is here, and which is now. Our other challenges have not vanished. COVID-19 is another great difficulty coupled with others that have now been exacerbated.

The second wave of COVID-19 in Fiji, which began in April 2021, has brought the most demanding health catastrophe in Fiji’s history. Women are at the forefront of this. From the leadership of the Fiji Centre for Disease Control, the Fiji COVID-19 Vaccination team to the Fiji CSO Alliance on COVID-19; women have led the way in crafting the canoe and sailing the rough terrain that COVID-19 has brought to Fiji.

Women’s Fund Fiji (the Fund) remained an integral conduit and connector in this context by providing flexible and adaptable grants. The Fund’s grantee partners have worked tirelessly since April, responding to a myriad of resilience and recovery work. In a pandemic, women have continued to lead. Some of these women are not health professionals, some of these women are farmers, some are women artisans, and some even sex workers. But they have contributed their heart and soul to their communities. The following excerpts capture the frontline work of some of our grantee partners[1] in the face of COVID-19 in Fiji.

Building Innate Resilience Through Hearts Fiji – BIRTH Fiji

BIRTH Fiji is a registered non-governmental organisation based in the Western Division. It was established in 2019 to provide free counselling services to individuals and families. The skilled and empathetic female counsellors have been working on a volunteer basis for the last two years whilst assisting the needy in the Western Division.

In adherence to the government’s COVID-19 guidelines and with very limited available resources, BIRTH Fiji counsellors continued to provide counselling services using innovative ways, such as providing counselling and referrals via phone to keep clients and themselves safe. In these challenging times, BIRTH Fiji counsellors mobilised resources from family and friends locally and overseas to meet the increasing number of requests from women and children for all sorts of services and items. According to the BIRTH Fiji director, sometimes counsellors had no other choice but to make personal sacrifices to help members of their community, for example, feeding families, pregnant mothers, and children who have not eaten for days.

Medical Services Pacific (MSP)

The Medical Services Pacific (MSP) is also a registered non-governmental organisation that is working to address gender-based violence through the provision of services such as counselling and mobile clinical services for women and girls. MSP is one of our grantee partners providing services to everyone. It is at the forefront of responding and supporting the Ministry of Health and other stakeholders during the pandemic. The MSP team is led by and consists of fierce women who believe in equality and equity in terms of services and rights for women and children in Fiji. During the pandemic, MSP executed a variety of activities from mental health, counselling, SRH services, clinical services, managing a 24/7 children’s helpline, referrals, and deploying volunteers at vaccination centers. MSP makes an effort to help everyone that comes to them, for example, in the last few months, they have been distributing food rations, medicines, and other necessities, addressing the urgent needs of women and children. As frontline workers, the lives of MSP staff are always at risk, but this does not, in any way, hinder their commitment and dedication to serving the women and children of Fiji.

The Naitasiri Women in Dairy Group (NWDG) reached out to the Fund for an amendment to their current Grant to include their COVID-19 support relief packages for their members who were facing the impacts from the containment zones and detection of COVID-19 positive cases in their community. Given the rising number of infections in their community, the women wanted to facilitate access to the second dose of vaccine for their members and families in early July via arranged transportation. This also prepared all NWDG members to meet the new COVID-19 requirements and continue to work together as a collective when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Talanoa Treks and a few private individuals have also reached out to NWDG and provided them with personal protective equipment, hygiene kits for women and facilitated access to markets for their mushrooms at the Sawani border. The NWDG members have also ventured into mushroom cultivation as part of their business diversification plan in 2020.

The Women Entrepreneurs Business Council (WEBC) worked tirelessly to help women small business owners to stay afloat during these challenging times. Especially given the announcement of COVID-19 safe business measures by the Ministry of Commerce, Trade, Tourism, and Transport. As a women’s fund, we must support these women to ensure that they operate business as usual and adhere to the COVID-19 safe business measures. We provided a grant to WEBC to establish COVID-19 safe business measures, including the safe transportation measures of produce to markets to these women.

Rise Beyond the Reef – The Basa Exchange concept focuses on promoting circular economies, inclusiveness of rural, remote communities. “Amid this pandemic, we have to fight with what we have and that involves everybody in the community. Using the traditional concept of ‘Solesolevaki’ – working together for the greater good, supporting each other during this difficult time,” said RBTR Co-Founder. With the Fund’s grant support, we provided financial support, enabling our grantee partner to travel to rural, remote communities to purchase crops/fresh produce at village-gate. These rural communities have lost opportunities at the markets where they often sold their produce. Since July 2021, the Basa exchange has benefited 1,313 rural, remote households, earning a total of FJ$119,317, much-needed cash at village gates. These Rural Remote communities (women) have supplied 119 tons of fresh root crops, vegetables, and fruits, providing a nutritional boost for families in containment / lockdown zones, and frontline workers in quarantine. A total of 1,813 households plus 549 individuals received fresh food packs through this initiative, covering areas from Nadi to Ba, Nausori, and Suva. RBTR worked in partnership with the local government to get food to those in need.

Trusting our grantee partner with this initiative and providing key support to the 1st Basa Exchange, we have witnessed the buy-in of Private sectors such as the ANZ Foundation and the Fiji Water Foundation, to support the Basa Exchange concept.

Inspired by the Basa Exchange model, one of our grantee partners, Pacific Rainbow Advocacy Network (PRAN), in their COVID-19 support for its members, adopted a holistic approach of partnering with RBTR for its rural members to be a part of the Basa Exchange, at the same time providing basic food necessities packages and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for its members. The Basa Exchange Partnership benefited PRAN members who were assisted with food ration including fresh crops and vegetables from youth and female farmers of Vaturu. This includes PRAN’s marginalised community, which was provided with a healthy diet, and earned income for Youths of Natawa village, and the women of Vaturu, who are underprivileged and live in remote communities that have limited access to assistance during thepandemic.

Talanoa Treks built on a similar concept, in partnership with NGO Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprise and Development and Fiji (FRIEND Fiji), to support women-led farms in the Ra Province and supply fresh produce to be included in the food security packs that are distributed by FRIEND Fiji in the Western Division.

Pacific Centre for Peace Building (PCP) provided COVID-19 relief support for frontline workers and community leaders in informal settlements. Building on their existing partnership with the Police Department, PCP handed out surveys to gauge what they currently felt, given that they had been away from their families for a prolonged period. The surveys also sought to help understand the experiences from the communities, what type of psycho-social support was needed by frontline workers and community women leaders post COVID-19. The data collected from this survey would assist PCP in creating referrals to relevant Service Providers.

Fiji Women’s Rights Movement (FWRM), one of Grantee Partners who is also an active member of the CSO Alliance, provided support for women and children in diverse communities who were struggling to meet the basic needs of their families. FMRW worked in partnership with Rainbow Pride Foundation, femLINK Pacific, Western Council of Special & Inclusive Network, and FRIEND Fiji to distribute food and personal protective equipment (PPEs) to women and children on Viti Levu.

The role of Women’s Fund Fiji as resource mobilisers, conduits, and connectors has enabled many canoes that the women of Fiji had crafted to sail. In sailing, these women have collaborated as in the example of RBTR and PRAN. They have been co-conspirators, much like MSP and BIRTH Fiji, or have been conduits themselves, like FWRM within the CSO Alliance.

Our Fijian feminist journey has come far from our birthing. We continue to nurture and support and learn from our feminist sisters around the world.

About Women’s Fund Fiji

Women’s Fund Fiji is the Pacific’s first national women’s fund. Established in 2017, our vision is as an agent of change, we are influencing the flow of resources to diverse women, girls, and gender non-conforming people in Fiji. We became registered as an independent entity under Fiji’s Charitable Trust Act in 2021.

Mission

We are an empathetic and adaptive feminist fund that influences and mobilises financial and non-financial resources for feminist and women’s rights organisations and movements, and our grantee partners, to progress the human rights of diverse women, girls, and gender non-conforming people in Fiji.

Values

Feminist: We are feminists. We promote transformative agency, autonomy, leadership, and decision-making. We are committed to supporting approaches that advance the rights of diverse women, girls, and gender non-conforming people. We practice rights-based approaches, substantive equality, non-discrimination, intersectional, and transformative approaches.

Flexible & Adaptable: We are responsive to shifting contexts and circumstances. We are willing to examine 76 the value of strategic opportunities to meet the needs of our partners.

Accountable: We are accountable to ourselves and to the community of people we work with, including our grantee partners, funders, and the women’s and human rights movements. We are committed to being accountable by appraising and communicating the outcomes of our grantmaking and sharing our learnings.

Transparent: We strive to be transparent in the way we conduct our grantmaking, resource mobilization, communications, administrative, and governance processes, without compromising on the confidentiality and safety of our grantee partners

Inclusive: We empathetically embrace diversity and are inclusive. We are committed to actively promoting, respecting, and supporting the rights of the most marginalized and oppressed communities of diverse women, girls, and gender non-conforming people in Fiji.

Collaborative: We believe in the power of social movements. We are committed to forging collaborative partnerships with the community of people we work with, including our grantee partners, funders, and allies to achieve shared goals.

 

 

 

[1] https://womensfundfiji.org/grants/grantees/

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